Thursday, July 19, 2007


Conversations about museum leadership seem to be happening everywhere. Several colleagues and I have recently had discussions about whether museum leaders can be trained, whether working with boards is an impossible task, whether a new generation of museum leaders will be willing to commit without adequate pay, and many, many more issues.

A recent discussion made me go back to two presentations at the American Association of Museums meeting in Chicago this year. My notes are a bit sketchy, but two museum leaders provided great food for thought--and perhaps models for us to consider.

Lou Casagrande of the Boston Children's Museum shared his five principles of creating an effective and creative organizational culture (and amazingly, I can't remember what else was in the session). He talked about creating a culture of light, not shadows, in an institution.

His five principles: (and I take full responsibility for any mistatements)

1. Manage with vision and values. Make sure everyone in the institution knows the big idea.
You can't be creative unless you know why.

2. Fight hierarchy, bosses and boundaries. His job, he thought, was to "create strategic chaos." Of course, he said, you also have to get things done, but this point, rare from a director, was about thinking outside the box within your organization.

3. Build around individuals, but plan for turnover. The individual makes things happen, but don't build your whole culture around individuals.

4. Open all your doors (metaphorically speaking, I guess) People, ideas, and innovations should be coming through all your doors.

5. Fund projects big and little. The Children's Museum has a program where staff can submit low-cost ideas that are reviewed by a staff peer group and funded. So great ideas can come from the maintenance staff, the gift shop clerks, or anywhere!

In another session, Emlyn Koster of the Liberty Science Center talked about threshold conditions for a culture of appreciative inquiry (learn more about that term and what it means here) Why have a culture of inquiry--several other speakers in the session talked about this culture as a prerequisite to change. If you ask questions, change begins to happen--and, at the same time, connections within and outside of the institution begin to happen.

His threshold conditions:

1. A mission that externally matters. Be explicity about the areas of intended useful outcome and link service/content and audience need.

2. Transformation of consciousness. Value the common good over self-interest and undertake such an effort wholeheartedly, not piecemeal.

3. Mission-driven, activist leadership. According to Koster, Aristotle defined leadership as "the pursuit of positive consequences in the world." A leader's job is clarifying and communicating the value of the organization.

4. A mission-aligned vision, values and strategy. He advocates for core and aspirational values that anchor the museum's core beliefs. Develop impact strategies that spur progress.

How often have any of us been in meetings where long, horribly boring discussions happen around tiny, tiny details--with no time left to discuss the things that really matter. So the last word goes to Emlyn Koster,

"Make sure that our conversations aren't analogous to how you shift the deck chairs on the Titanic."

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